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Bush and Kerry race back to campaign trail to keep debate criticism flying

Updated:
ST. LOUIS (AP) _ President Bush and Sen. John Kerry sprinted back to the campaign trail Saturday to carry on their debate over Iraq and taxes, an argument in which each claims the other lacks the ability to advance the war abroad and put more people to work at home.

``With a straight face, he said, 'I only had one position on Iraq,''' Bush said at a breakfast fund-raiser for Matt Blunt, the Missouri secretary of state who is running for governor. ``He must think we've been on another planet.''

Kerry has asserted that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney might be the ``last two people on the planet who won't face the truth about'' ongoing violence and instability in Iraq.

``In the spring of 2003 as I ordered the invasion of Iraq, Sen. Kerry said it was the right decision,'' Bush said. ``Now he says it's the wrong war. And he's trying to tell us he's had only one position. Who is he trying to kid? He can run, but he cannot hide.''

In his weekly radio address, Bush borrowed from his campaign appearances this week when he contended that Kerry's proposals ``would weaken America and make the world more dangerous.''

Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart cast the final weeks of the campaign as a battle on Kerry's part for the middle class and on Bush's for ``a much narrower group, those who are at the top end of the income scale.''

``We think last night was an important breakthrough, particularly in the engagement on domestic policy,'' Lockhart told reporters in a conference call. ``I think John Kerry scored very well any time the subject turned to jobs, the economy, health care and the environment.''

Bush was visiting Iowa and Minnesota on Saturday and Kerry both Ohio and Florida, all battleground states critical to victory on Election Day. Their 90-minute debate Friday night featured testy exchanges as they argued over the war, jobs, education, health care, abortion, the environment and prescription drugs.

Bush said that if Kerry were president, Saddam Hussein ``would still be in power.'' The senator replied: ``Not necessarily be in power ...''

Bush said tax increases would be inevitable if the Democrat took power, as Kerry promised not to raise taxes on those making $200,000 or less.

The debate's questions were delivered by selected voters, just 25 days before the election, on subjects that spanned diplomacy, economics and ethics.

Kerry condemned Bush as the first president to see more jobs lost than created in 72 years, criticizing his successive tax cuts as a giveaway to the rich at the expense of massive budget deficits.

Kerry also responded without hesitation that he would pledge not to raise taxes on people making less than $200,000. ``Absolutely yes, right into the camera. Yes _ I am not going to raise taxes.''

Bush scoffed at the answer. ``Of course he's going to raise your taxes.'' The president said Kerry would raise taxes on middle-class Americans to pay for campaign promises that he tagged at $2.2 trillion, while labeling his opponent one of the country's most liberal senators.

The president dampened the scowling expressions of the first debate, but several questions brought his emotions bubbling up as he moved aggressively to counter the Massachusetts Democrat. He overtook one of moderator Charles Gibson's questions as he attacked Kerry's statement that the United States went alone into war in Iraq.

``I've got to answer this,'' Bush said as he cut off the moderator. ``There are 30 countries there. It denigrates an alliance to say we're going alone, to discount their sacrifices.''

Kerry showed a cooler and wordier bearing to the participants and television viewers, but he was no less argumentative than the more heated president. The Republican campaign said Kerry looked haughty, and Bush aides counted the Democrat's negative facial expressions.

An instant ABC News poll suggested that the voters who tuned in for the Friday night debate picked Kerry the winner by a narrower margin than the first debate. This time, the quick poll showed 44 percent of voters saying Kerry won, 41 percent favoring Bush and 13 percent declaring a tie. The two men fared about equally in a poll of debate viewers by CNN-USA Today-Gallup. Asked who did a better job, 47 percent said Kerry and 45 percent said Bush.

In some cases, the candidates used the forum to patch their weak spots.

The first question invited Kerry to bat down a reputation for being ``wishy-washy.'' He turned it into an attack on Bush, saying the president ``didn't find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so he's really turned his campaign into a weapon of mass deception'' by claiming that the four-term Massachusetts senator had changed his mind when he had not.

Bush also set to lay to rest persistent rumors that the war in Iraq would require the nation to return to a military draft. ``We're not going to have a draft. Period,'' the president said.

The third and final debate will be held Wednesday in Tempe, Ariz., with the focus on domestic issues.
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